Hogarth, France and All That

In 1859-60 the young Edgar Degas occupied himself very profitably by making drawings after engravings of Hogarth’s ‘modern moral subjects’: A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress, Marriage A-la-Mode and The Four Times of the Day. He brought a peculiarly French refinement of line to his studies, which are reminiscent of the great draughtsmen of the eighteenth century and, indeed, of Watteau. Nothing could have been more appropriate because, as I argue in my new book Hogarth, France and British Art, Hogarth’s own art was founded upon the most thorough appreciation of contemporary French art and theory.

This is a paradox, in that Hogarth was vociferous in his apparent contempt for all things French. On his visit to Paris in 1748 he was recorded marching about like any modern football fan, shouting, ‘Their houses are all gilt and beshit!’ Yet this is the same man who was at pains to tell his young friends to be sure to visit the studios of Chardin and La Tour the following year. Hogarth was the first British artist to develop an export market in original works of art, sending off sets of his engravings to collectors in France accompanied by explanatory texts in French. Indeed, Hogarth’s first recorded visit to Paris, in May-June 1743, was for the purpose of hiring French engravers to create the prints after his new, and exquisitely painted, series Marriage A-la-Mode.

The current Hogarth exhibition opened in Paris, where it was brilliantly displayed. (The present Tate Britain exhibition is a larger version of that shown in Paris.) I was lucky enough to give a public lecture in the new auditorium of the Louvre on the subject of Hogarth’s Paris visits, and proposed that when he went there in 1743 he would have arrived clutching the first canvas of Marriage A-la-Mode. There is sound technical evidence to back this up. The Louvre exhibition was therefore the first occasion on which the initial canvas of Marriage A-la-Mode had been in Paris for two hundred and sixty-three years.

By the 1750s, Hogarth was much collected in France: the grand panjandrum of the French art establishment, the Marquis de Marigny, Mme de Pompadour’s younger brother, had a complete set. Hogarth’s graphic works became part of the common visual language of Europe. There was nothing unusual, then, in Degas’s copying from the ‘progresses’; it was a familiar exercise. By the twentieth century, however, Hogarth had vanished from the French consciousness, and so the curators of the Louvre exhibition, Olivier Meslay and Frédéric Ogee, were faced with a tricky task. The imagination which they brought to their display meant that French prejudices about this obscure British artist were simply blown away. The show was one of the most successful ever mounted by the Louvre. Hogarth, after so many years, had returned: and taken Paris by storm.

Robin Simon MA 1971 – Chairman CAFS

Robin Simon’s book Hogarth, France and British Art: The rise of the arts in eighteenth-century Britain, is published by Paul Holberton Publishing.